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J. Robert Oppenheimer: Horrified by the atom bomb’s eventual effect

For many people the name Robert Oppenheimer probably conjures up two things: the man in charge of the Manhattan Project for creating the nuclear bomb, and the head of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. It also recalls the victim of a nasty investigative process designed to undercut his authority and remove his security clearance. Wicked nonsense it was, motivated by hatred and paranoia, and though he was later offered his security clearance back, his response was, “Not on your life!”

In Ray Monk’s superb new biography Inside the Centre (Doubleday, £24.99), J. Robert Oppenheimer comes over as an extraordinary, if flawed, intellectual. The investigation he suffered, carried out under the direction of one Lewis Strauss (pronounced Straws), was a travesty of justice. Conversations with his lawyers were bugged and the transcripts handed to the prosecution, who had full access to his FBI file while the defence did not. The prosecution even leaked secret testimony by Oppenheimer deliberately to damage his reputation with other scientists. Monk tells this story with verve and riveting detail.

During the entire process he remained head of the Institute for Advanced Study, leading it for nearly 20 years until shortly before his death at the age of 62. This long tenure only started after the Manhattan Project was over; a project that might very well have failed without his direction. That in itself was a remarkable achievement, much maligned by those who would rather see a one-dimensional picture of Oppenheimer as Dr Atomic. The Manhatten Project was conceived in terror of the Nazis getting there first, but by the time it was clear they wouldn’t, the concern was: how many more US lives were to be lost in battling the Japanese?

Oppenheimer never doubted the urgency of the matter, but was horrified by its eventual effect. When he pressed for international co-operation and control over nuclear weapons, President Truman referred to him as a “cry-baby”. “Do you know how long it will be before the Russians can make a nuclear bomb?” Truman asked Oppenheimer, who declined to estimate. “Never,” said Truman.

Oppenheimer then tried to avert the development of the hydrogen bomb but Truman broadcast to the world that the Americans were working on it. The day he made this announcement, Lewis Strauss held a party, and “walked over to Oppenheimer to introduce his son and his son’s new wife. To Strauss’s mortification, Oppenheimer did not even bother to turn round. He simply extended a hand over his shoulder.” At the same party celebrating Strauss’s birthday and the hydrogen bomb announcement, a New York Times journalist spotted Oppenheimer standing alone.

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